The Puzzle of Leadership

In an excerpt from his autobiography, William M. Chace discusses what it's really like as president to deal with administrators, faculty members and trustees.

September 11, 2006

The academic year 1990-91 was my third year at Wesleyan. I did not know it at the time, but it would end the first half of my presidency at the institution. I thought at the time that I would stay there for many years. I had only begun to work on some of the major issues of the place: its budgetary shortfall, its far-flung curriculum, and, above all, the painful question of its identity.

There was a great deal to do. Over the years Wesleyan had lost key faculty and these individuals, I knew, had provided much of the intellectual life-blood of the place. We had to replace them with scholars who would replenish and then increase the school’s educational capital. Everything I knew about colleges and universities had told me that you build institutional strength on the quality of the faculty; nothing can substitute for it. And I wanted to fulfill the pledge I had made to the campus that at least 4 of the 19 vacant professorial positions would be filled by people of color and 10 of them by women. This was not going to be easy to do.

As the year began, I proceeded to do what, on occasion, presidents must do. Concluding that Wesleyan did not have the administrative strength it needed to resolve the issues it faced, I asked for and accepted the resignations of several officers who had served the school for a long time. The chief academic officer had worked for Wesleyan in a meritorious way for years, exercising considerable diplomatic skill in countless situations with his faculty colleagues, both good and troublesome. He gracefully returned to the faculty and resumed his career as superb teacher and scholar. The dean of students who, years before, had been one of the first black students at Wesleyan had risen to administrative prominence contending again and again with difficult students, impossible students, and some very good students. But exasperated and fatigued by his job, his for 17 years, he left Wesleyan to take a position with the Ford Foundation. The third officer, who for years supervised in a distant and supercilious way both fund-raising and public relations, seemed wedded to the style of my predecessor and considered me an unfortunate interloper. After several failed attempts to get him to accept the fact that I really was the president, I told him that I would begin a search for his successor. He left the university in anger and resentment.

New college and university presidents find that changes they want to make in the administrative structure are not accomplished easily or quickly. That was my experience; it is the experience of every president. The administrative colleagues I had inherited had been at the institution for a long time. Each of them had allies, networks of memory and friendship, and a sense of rootedness. For me to make personnel changes was to challenge the weight of institutional history. While some observers might believe that a university president can behave like a CEO, striking with impunity down through the layers of personnel to achieve an instant result, everything the president does is subjected to the closest and most protracted possible reading.

Universities, not being corporations, are profligate with time. Hence nothing on a campus is viewed only once; every change, as well as every possibility of change, is scrutinized again and again. Moreover, the "hermeneutics of suspicion," as literary scholars term it, is visited upon all new things. And it does no good to consider the job I had to be equivalent to that of a "CEO." The business CEO is responsible only to a board of directors; the university or college president is responsible to a great number of parties, each of them holding its own system of values and its own proprietary relationship to the institution. Chief among these parties are the trustees and the faculty. Each of them has a hold on the president’s tenure, and a faculty who has lost confidence in a president possesses as much authority as the trustees who officially appoint presidents and accept their resignations.

But the personnel changes I made were more or less accepted by the campus and Wesleyan seemed ready to work with new people. But I did not appoint them all by myself. Everything important on a university campus is done collectively. For example, a search committee, made up almost entirely of faculty members, and chaired by a senior member of the faculty, was established to find the new chief academic officer. Because authority is oddly dispersed on the Wesleyan campus, as it is on every campus, this new officer would formally report to me, but his or her selection would largely be in the hands of the faculty group. The principle of "dual control" would be in force, a principle that recognizes two facts: 1. presidents are the receptacles in which power is nominally placed, but much of that power is informally in the hands of others; and 2. faculty members are not so much the employees of the institution as they are its intellectual engine and its most important asset. They are "capital" rather than "labor." The faculty rightly demands primary control over educational processes, and considers trustee or presidential involvement in those processes as unacceptable. All of which makes “control” of the institution an ambiguous matter. Sometimes it’s hard to know who is in charge of a college and university, and while the fiction of “presidential leadership” is often employed to mask this reality, the president -- every president -- learns after a while how much of his authority is, in fact, in the hands of others.

After a strenuous search, Wesleyan appointed Joanne Creighton [who has since become president of Mount Holyoke College] as the new chief academic officer. She had been successful as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she also was a professor of English. She brought toughness of mind and an admirably imperturbable manner to Wesleyan. “Another day; another problem solved” seemed to be her motto. She looked at the academic budget, winced once or twice, and got to work. She did not make the mistake, easy for someone new to the job, of first looking for items to cut; instead, she framed the process as one establishing what had to be saved. After that, in time, but with certainty: the cuts.

Beginning with a sense of priorities, she looked at her work as objective exercises in academic planning. This formalized her labors and it depersonalized the process. For a while, the faculty reared back and pleaded self-rule, but she briskly informed the chairs of departments that, after all, she held certain important “cards,” they being the collection of faculty positions reverting to her office upon the death or retirement of colleagues. She would reallocate them on the basis of her judgment of which departments were making good sense of what they were doing, what they were teaching, and where they were going. She was aware of the narcissistic tendencies of the faculty and their preference to cast blame rather than take responsibility for the institution, but she reminded them that Wesleyan would be their professional home for the rest of their lives. They had better care for it.

At times the faculty accused her of playing favorites, and this was true in an admirable sense: she gave preference to academic departments that were well organized and productive. And week by week, month by month, she employed her every resource to chip away at the culture of entrenched fiefdoms. Together we created a new committee, the Institutional Priorities Advisory Committee, made up entirely of faculty members. We asked its members to use every fact available about the institution to establish what Wesleyan, at its best, could be. We would listen to their advice and then we, not they, would make the most of it. I wanted, and she wanted, the faculty to take what they already had -- namely, a sense of rights and privileges -- and to add to it a sense of responsibility and obligation. I willingly gave up my position as chair of the academic council, believing that a member of the faculty should take on the job -- as occurs at most colleges. Either it was an academic body or it was not. Although several faculty members first saw this as a ploy so ingenious that its malign administrative intent could not be discerned by even the closest inspection, everybody finally accepted it as only right and proper.

We were less successful in our efforts to make institutional sense of the process by which Wesleyan tenure awarded. We inherited a highly inefficient mechanism that presumed perfidy at every turn: within the department recommending a candidate, within the elected advisory committee that would spend hours mulling over the department’s action, within the office of the provost bringing the case forward to the full complement of tenured faculty members, and also within the president who would take the case forward (if I deemed it meritorious) to the trustees for final approval. Although the faculty claimed to be interested in “quality control,” the system confused the labor-intensive with the rigorous, adding to the mix the special ingredient of suspiciousness.

While Joanne and I only partially succeeded in making the system more rational and less wasteful of faculty time, we reconciled ourselves to the fact that the faculty should indeed figure prominently in that most crucial moment: the tenure decision, the means by which they would look after their own posterity. We could supervise the fairness of the system and mop up after the occasional derelictions of faculty duty, but we had no right to extract from the faculty the dignity of their own self-determination.

In time, and with the customary indulgence of other search committees, I found able successors to the remaining vacated positions. Although I was concerned about the institution’s budgetary deficit, the chief financial officer -- Bob Taylor -- was a man of thoroughgoing integrity and competence.  He had struggled for years with the institution’s predisposition to live beyond its means. He had learned, as I was to learn, that no chief financial officer can alone balance the budget if the institution continually exerts a pressure to do things for which it does not have the money. I found at Wesleyan a collective desire -- rooted in faculty hopes and dreams and endorsed by administrative sympathies and trustee lenience -- to be a certain kind of institution, indeed a wonderful institution, but one that could not support itself. The chief financial officer could minimize here and there, look for savings, and exert discipline where possible. But Joanne Creighton and I had to exercise authority and judgment about how most of the money was found and used.

As the three of us -- Joanne, Bob, and I -- worked on these problems, I began to see that the three major issues at Wesleyan -- its identity, its financial condition, and its curriculum -- evolved into one problem: could the institution shape its curriculum to reduce costs and also project to itself and to the interested public an attractive and compelling self-portrait? That was the issue I faced and asked others to face.

In addition to this imposing task, I also dealt at regular intervals with the single most exotic component of a college or university: the trustees. Those times came when the full complement of 33 men and women (mostly the former) descended upon Middletown from New York, Boston, Washington, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other cities to accomplish their regularly scheduled work. They undertook their tasks through five or six standing committees but always left themselves plenty of time to see again the campus at which most of them had once been students, have drinks and dinner, and chat about Wesleyan as they believed it to be or as they wanted it to be. Their visits were occasions for the administration to present carefully designed “show and tell” exercises, to give the best possible meaning to any situations under review, and to demonstrate that Wesleyan was in good hands. They were also occasions for the trustees to comport themselves in a way that would reinforce their belief that they were exerting general control over the institution.

After I participated in these ceremonies several times, I reflected on the historical reasons for the existence of trustees and considered the kind of asset -- or deficit -- they were to the institution. Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger observe in their magisterial The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States that only this country and Canada have boards of private citizens governing their private universities and colleges. European universities are characteristically under their own control but have evolved under the additional impact of both state and church.  On the other hand, schools like Wesleyan (and Harvard, Princeton, Haverford, Emory and countless others) founded by nonconformist Protestant churches are quite different from the medieval universities that, thanks to church sponsorship, were held at a distance from civic authorities. As Hofstadter and Metzger observe, “both the church principle of ecclesiastical independence and the guild principle of corporate self-government provided [European] universities and society at large with dominant models of autonomy.”

Such autonomy was not a part of the formula that created America’s private universities and, in being deprived of it, institutions like Wesleyan found that the lay government establishing them wound up exerting considerable control over them. One early consequence was the reduction of the faculty’s freedom to determine its own affairs. As Hofstadter and Metzger point out, lay government, with trustees holding fiduciary control of the institution and thus, at least legally, retaining the power to hire and fire faculty and administrators, has "hampered the development of organization, initiative, and self-confidence among American college professors, and it has contributed, along with many other forces in American life, to lowering their status in the community. Other professional groups have far greater power to determine the standards and conduct of their own professions. "

And thus the strange spectacle of the Wesleyan trustees, a spectacle common to all such American trustees. While regarding their sporadic duties with utmost seriousness and working without any monetary compensation, these well-meaning men and women brought to their duties no special knowledge of education, of either teaching or research, the twin functions of the institution. They brought instead affection and loyalty. Knowing Wesleyan had changed them in positive ways, they offered it their time, their respect, and, in some cases, their philanthropic support. Officially, they were “in charge.” That is what “fiduciary responsibility” meant. But none of them, in fact, knew the college well, nor could they, given the limited time they could spend on campus. The faculty, which did possess an intimate knowledge of the institution, nonetheless felt inferior to trustee power and prestige as it was periodically visited upon the campus. This peculiar situation, in which the local education experts on the Wesleyan campus -- the faculty -- were by tradition made to feel inferior to the distant entities setting policy for them, was at the root of their anemia, an anemia of morale.

The faculty and I recognized, by way of consolation, that the trustees saw in Wesleyan what it once had been in the past -- sometimes in the imaginary past -- not what it currently was. Their link was to a place that only partially continued to exist. We, on the other hand, were on the campus as it was and there we made our respective ways. There is an endearing pathos to this situation, but I soon concluded that trustee sentimentality, as poignant as it might be, is a poor guide for stewardship.

I had to keep in mind that the duty of trustees is, in fact, to “contribute.” I learned, however, that trustee contributions are a mixed blessing. At their best, they bring, as the euphonious clichés go, “time, talent, and tribute” or “work, wisdom, and wealth.” But only rarely did any Wesleyan trustee, even those with “talent” or “wisdom,” possess the kind of sophisticated knowledge about the academic workings of the institution to be any more than a kindly observer of it.  And we in the administration behaved as if indeed we were being observed.  Hence the careful design of our staged presentations to the trustees, the formal introduction of one or another precisely selected star faculty member or student to speak to them, the scrubbed and polished views of the budget.  We did not seek to deceive, but to convey what we could to a body of people who knew far less about the institution than we did and whose connection to it was, in sum, charitable but quite imperfect.

During those meetings, often taken up by topics with which some trustees felt affinity, such as investment management or deferred maintenance, I would wish that I could take them to witness the genius and magic of the place. It did not exist where, in light of their business or legal experience, trustees felt most comfortable -- the management of money and the repair of buildings -- but in the classroom, that extraordinary arena where young minds could be challenged and enlightened through the touch of a teacher. Wesleyan had such teachers, many of them, and such teaching constituted the core of the school’s value. But, to the trustees, the classroom seemed inaccessible, a foreign territory made up of odd young people and slightly eccentric older men and women. For me, the tragicomedy of the trustee visits was that these decent men and women were unequipped to comprehend the essence of the institution they were pledged to guide and support.

Some, but hardly all, were financially generous. One in particular, the CEO of a large national company, had long since seen Wesleyan change from the place he knew as a student. He had become a Republican businessman in Texas but something arising from his largeness of spirit and his ability to recall with genuine love the quality of his youth prompted him to support, in a wide variety of ways, and usually anonymously, his alma mater. Student radicals, incensed by one thing or another the trustees had done (usually concerning their investment policies), customarily called him terrible names when he would visit the campus.  He would smile gently and, after a while, call me to say that another handsome check was in the mail. Another wealthy trustee, wise and generous about young people, set up a splendid fund along the lines of the Rhodes Trust to support fully some 80 students from 10 countries in Asia who, carefully selected, would enrich the student body and would, in time, return to their native countries with a strong American education. Such trustees exemplified what a combination of “wealth” and “wisdom” could do. But in their generosity, and in their benign understanding that the institution they now supported had moved leagues away from the one they had known as students, these two trustees were exceptions. Others, including those few who seemed prompted only by parsimony and intrusiveness, behaved differently.

Perhaps the oddest trustee behavior arose from those who felt that Wesleyan should have a specific and unique “mission” and that I, as president, must sound a rallying-cry to let the world know what Wesleyan, as opposed to all other liberal arts colleges, stood for. One trustee, looking at me with eagerness and hope, asked what my “vision” of Wesleyan was. He wanted to relay this precious idea to others in his alumni class. At the time, all I wanted was to end the year peacefully, with no other buildings burned, and students taking their final exams in peace. I thought back to Richard Lyman’s defense of Stanford in a time of violence and fear. Lyman had a “vision” then of Stanford: it should survive. That seemed to me a paramount aim for Wesleyan at the time. To the trustee, I responded that I had tried to make my idea of the institution as clear as possible in my inaugural address. I then added, by way of digest of that address, that I saw Wesleyan as a place where the highest standards of teaching and learning, reinforced by research, would be upheld, a place that would have the means to take good young minds and make them more responsive, capacious, and informed. He looked at me, deeply disappointed. To him, my words must have seemed little puffs of presidential air. I was sorry that he had nothing to take back to his classmates, but Wesleyan’s survival was my main mission at the time.

On another occasion, a trustee volunteered the idea that, to achieve fiscal equilibrium at home and uniqueness among all our “competitors,” we should consider simply dropping a full range of curricular offerings. He suggested the social sciences -- economics, political science, sociology, and history. When I responded that without those things we could not call ourselves a liberal arts institution, he asked that I think about moving away from “timeworn tradition” to establish a genuinely special “brand.” This I knew was “thinking outside the box,” but, as a result, we would destroy the box.

Unworkable ideas like this, born of business practices, now and again occur to trustees and did not surprise me. Trustees speak of what they know and where they have been. This man was an aggressive and successful broker. He moved money and thought I could just as easily move the curriculum. Although he was extraordinary in the boldness of his misunderstanding, he was no more than typical in other ways. Trustees tend to fit the following general categories: they are male, in their 50s, white, and financially successful. They are mainly in law, business, and medicine. Few are musicians, artists, or writers. Almost none is a teacher. One of the most striking facts about them is that they are almost wholly unfamiliar with the basic literature about higher education. By and large, they do not know studies such as the popular book by Henry Rosovsky, The University: An Owner's Manual (whose title might seem tempting to them). One study of their reading habits concludes: “…the trustees’ lack of familiarity with the literature serves to underscore the peripheral nature of the trusteeship for most of the board members.” Yet most trustees are not peripheral in the affection they have for “their” institution. The contrast, then, between the emotional weight they bring to their roles and their shallow knowledge of higher education in general creates a considerable challenge to all presidents and their administrative colleagues. At Wesleyan, we faced that challenge three or four times a year.

In a gesture of solicitude, a trustee would now or again tell me that he thought the presidency “must be the toughest job in the world.” Usually this meant that in his business or profession, the lines of command authority were clearer and he could exercise power more directly than I could. I would respond with thanks, adding that the scholarly literature on the presidency supported his thinking. Many people who have looked at the job have concluded that it is, if not impossible, at least very difficult. Clark Kerr delivered the classic summation of the duties of a university president:

The university president in the United States is expected to be a friend to the students, a colleague of the faculty, a good fellow with the alumni, a sound administrator with the trustees, a good speaker with the public, an astute bargainer with the foundations and the federal agencies, a politician with the state legislature, a friend of industry, labor and agriculture, a persuasive diplomat with donors, a champion of education generally, a supporter of the professions (particularly law and medicine), a spokesman to the press, a scholar in his own right, a public servant at the state and national levels, a devotee of opera and football generally, a decent human being, a good husband and father, an active member of the church. Above all, he must enjoy traveling in airplanes, eating his meals in public, and attending public ceremonies.

With the exception of those duties the president of a public institution alone would have, Kerr’s droll description fit what I found myself doing.

I knew that people thought my job very difficult, but perhaps blinded by excessive self-regard or limited in imaginative intelligence, I thought it a good one, not an impossible one, and I enjoyed almost all of its aspects. In performing all those duties Kerr described, I was glad to be active, happy to be involved in many committees, and eager to learn more about how the place worked, what made different people tick (or not tick), and what held such a curious thing as a liberal-arts college together. I slept well, exercised a lot, went to work every day with a smile, and thought myself a lucky fellow to be at Wesleyan.

When gloomy days descended, as they now and again did, I consoled myself with little mental games. Thinking about the profusion of advice I continually received from every quarter of the campus, I would say to myself: “Being president must be the easiest job in the world; after all, everybody seems to know how to do it.” Or I would think about how the “leadership” of a campus is so amusingly different from leadership elsewhere. I would recall that George Shultz once said that the biggest difference between his life as a corporate leader and his career as dean of a business school was that, in business, he had to make sure that his orders were precise and exact, given that they would likely be followed. No such danger in academia. In sum, the very peculiarities of the job were its most appealing feature.

Much of the literature on presidential leadership concludes that the job is impossible, but it should also note the obvious: at any given time, about 3,500 men and women do the job.  The situation is much like that of the airplane: there is no obvious reason why so large and heavy a piece of metal can fly through the sky, yet it does.  Despite the impossibility of their work, thousands of presidents go to the office every day, successfully complete some tasks, and return home.

Robert Birnbaum, one of those scholars who claims that the job is unworkable, argues that the problem of presidential leadership is that the criteria for success and failure are elusive:

…there is no accepted criterion presidents can employ to judge the benefits of one course of action over another, and little assurance that they could implement their preferences even if they could specify them. Presidential authority is limited, complete understanding of the scope and complexity of the enterprise exceeds human cognitive capability, and unforeseen changes in demographic, political, and economic conditions often overwhelm campus plans.

But the “impossibility” of such places can serve as a healthy reminder of what they are not. A university or college is not a business, does not make a profit, cannot declare quarterly earnings, “wins” nothing, hopes to flourish forever, will never be bought out, cannot relocate, is both in and out of the world, studies everything including itself, considers itself a meritocracy while continually worshipping the idea of community, and has as its greatest asset an odd assemblage of self-directed intellectual entrepreneurs who work on the most complicated aspects of their respective disciplines. What a university does is expensive, time-consuming, inefficient, wayward, hard to understand, and yet prestigious. It also helps young people and, more and more each year, looks after them in all sorts of ways. It is exclusive in admissions and appointments, but generous in sharing the fruits of its labor.  It stands on ancient ceremonies yet accelerates the workings of democracy. All in all, I thought, a good place to be, even if my job was “impossible.”    


William M. Chace is professor of English and president emeritus of Emory University. He is the author of The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling: Criticism and Politics. Princeton University Press has just published his autobiography, One Hundred Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way. This essay is adapted from the autobiography, covering the period that Chace was president of Wesleyan University. The essay is published here with the permission of the Princeton University Press.


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